In the first of her biweekly columns for Media Diversified, author, playwright and social commentator Vanessa Walters discusses the backlash to Green Book and whether the prominent “white saviour” role in films ostensibly about people of colour has finally had its day.
When Sarah Hagi conceived her ‘Daily Prayer for the confidence of a mediocre white man’, it might have been referencing Peter Farelly, the filmmaker of Dumb and Dumber who suddenly decided he was ideally qualified to take on racial politics and African American history in the form of Green Book, which opens February 1st in the UK.
Sure, the road to ridicule is paved with good intentions. Just as Tom Cruise’s entirely fictional white man Nathan Algren is inserted into Japanese history to tell the story of the Samurai tradition in The Last Samurai, Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip is centred in the true story of Black classical pianist Dr Don Shirley. Shirley is played by Mahershala Ali and the film takes its name from the Negro Motorist Green Book – an essential travel guide for Black people to stay safe while travelling around a deeply racist and segregated America.
“The entertainment industry whether film, publishing or theatre has long believed that Black stories or characters are unlikely to be commercially successful on a grand scale unless, through a glass darkly, white people are able to positively identify and expand their understanding of themselves”
Everything that is wrong with this film has been aptly covered by the Black cinema-focused blog Shadow and Act. Suffice it to say this reverse Driving Miss Daisy offended many by having Shirley literally in the back seat to racist Lip from the poster. Ali ended up apologising to the Shirley family for the film being so ill-informed and Farelly hid behind Octavia Spencer’s skirts, but something remains to be said about a culture in which white saviour narratives are still a thing and Black stories still have to be transmogrified into white stories before they can be deemed commercial.
The entertainment industry whether film, publishing or theatre has long believed that Black stories or characters are unlikely to be commercially successful on a grand scale unless, through a glass darkly, white people are able to positively identify and expand their understanding of themselves. I remember being told this myself as an up and coming writer trying to get plays and scripts commissioned. The British euphemism back then was ‘universal’. If scripts were too Black they were not ‘universal’ – and if they were not Black enough they were not ‘authentic’ and between this rock and hard place little was commissioned.
It seemed there were only certain narratives about Black characters that could resonate with white audiences. The most common of these has been the white saviour narrative, where Black people are incapable of helping themselves unless rescued from their plight by a (usually fictional) white character as represented in such movies as Dangerous Minds, Amistaad, The Blind Side, 12 Years a Slave etc. This year look out for The Upside in which Kevin Hart plays the ex-con bed-pan handler to Bryan Cranston’s white billionaire. It looks hilarious. And awful. The problems with the narrative are of course that it perpetuates a myth that Black people have always been helped out of their predicaments by well-meaning white people. It also obviously furthers stereotypes of Black people as incapable and inferior.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Aside from white saviour narratives there are the usual stereotypical ‘case studies’ of blackness as self-inflicted dysfunction and pain such as The Color Purple, Precious and Boyz in Da Hood. They might be seminal works but frustratingly the only sort of Black stories Hollywood has historically wanted to tell. Let’s not forget Black people as comic relief genre (Big Momma’s House and Me, Myself & Irene – another Farelly demonstration of racial obtuseness) via which white superiority is affirmed.
Things have changed over time with more alternative stories being told. This year’s most anticipated Black stories are the movie adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk by Barry Jenkins and Us by Jordan Peele of Get Out fame. But old narratives still continue to be lucrative. The foundation stone of the white saviour narrative one might say is the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird about a white lawyer defending a Black man accused of murder in Jim-Crow era Alabama. Now on Broadway, the play has broken records, as the highest single-week grossing American play in Broadway history.
“Condemnation of King without acknowledgement of the culture is cognitive dissonance plain and simple. How easy then to see such adherence to narratives that can only tell Black stories through a white supremacist prism”
And for the answer as to why such narratives are so popular one need only look to US Congressman Steve King’s widely condemned comment last week to the New York Times “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
Out of the mouths of racists…. But white supremacy IS an intrinsic part of the present culture, tied in with the teaching and identification of Western civilisation as a Eurocentric heritage of values, systems and knowledge that is superior to the rest of the world. Far from being offensive to most, one might say it is as American as ‘nude’ tights that only suit white skin and white-washed history that minimises genocide and slavery and the one drop rule and mass incarceration policies targeting people of colour.
Condemnation of King without acknowledgement of the culture is cognitive dissonance plain and simple. How easy then to see such adherence to narratives that can only tell Black stories through a white supremacist prism.
The digitalisation of media has fortunately provided less reliance of those traditional gatekeepers of the entertainment industry for stories of people of colour to be promoted and distributed. More choice for the audience means less control over narratives and more opportunity for prejudices about what or who will sell to be dislodged.
Platforms from Netflix to HBO are falling over themselves to draw in content from people of colour to tell their stories in all their glorious randomness and specificity. Social media allows content to reach its market. Hopefully the mainstream audience can be tempted away from their usual narratives and more stories can be told honestly and bravely in their rightful voice, no white saviours necessary.